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‘Theater has always been part of our relationship’

December 5, 2018



Rutherford County Schools


If Mary Ellen and Matthew Smith heard it once, they’ve heard it a thousand times.


“I don’t think I could work with my husband.”


“I don’t think I could work with my wife.”


Matthew’s reply is always the same, “I don’t want to work with anybody else.”


He knows that day will eventually come. Until then he and Mary Ellen not only teach at Riverdale High School, but they are the heart and soul of the theater department. Mary Ellen has been there 11 years and Matthew joined her full-time seven years ago after helping his wife with staging and set-building.


“It’s a great partnership,” Matthew said.


“We just work well together,” added Mary Ellen. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”


He sees the big picture.


She notices the details.


Together they are directing a student production of “Dearly Departed.”


The cast and crew will stage the comedy for classmates in the auditorium during school hours. Public performances begin Dec. 6 and will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and again in the afternoon on Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m.


Tickets are $5 for students $10 for adults.


“Dearly Departed” is a comedy.


Mary Ellen said they did “Dracula” last year, which she described as dark and heavy, “so we kind of went the opposite of that.”


“I wanted something small,” Matthew added, “but then at the auditions I changed my mind and got a bunch of people who’ve never done shows with us before. It’s a new experience for them and more work for us.”


Three of the primary cast members include Shelby Smith, Lindsey White and Emma Davila.


“Teaching comes pretty easy,” said Matthew, who graduated from Riverdale in 1997, “but, unlike an English teacher, who sees you for one year, I may have the same student for four whole years, so I get to know them differently and my relationship with them is different than it would be for the student I have for a year.”


Mary Ellen added, “(Students) come to us with all their problems and not just school stuff, but personal stuff.”


Matthew teaches theater I, II and III, while Mary Ellen teaches I, II and IV.


Theater I is an introductory course, II is all acting, III covers staging and sets along with sound and lighting, and IV is directing.


The program has grown since Mary Ellen arrived 11 years ago.


Back then, her theater III and IV classes were a combined 12 students compared to 21 students currently in IV and Matthew has two sections of III with 20 students each.


“The program has grown immensely,” said Matthew, who recognizes Riverdale has long been known for its dominate athletic programs, “but why can’t we be known for something other than that?


“There’s a little bit of recognition throughout the state that we’ve gotten (for drama) because of the kids that have come through our program.”


Matthew and Mary Ellen credit the administration.


It started with former principal Tom Nolan, who hired both of them, and has continued on with Ryan Nance.


This spring, they will stage two musical productions of “The Addams Family.”


In addition to the student production, Mary Ellen and Matthew will host casting auditions for alumni and friends “for those people who want to do theater but may not have a place,” Matthew said.


He described it as community outreach.


That means more time in the theater.


Then again, an hour after Mary Ellen and Matthew were engaged to be married they were in the audience of a Blackman High School production of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”


“Theater has always been part of our relationship,” Mary Ellen said. “We got married on a Saturday and we didn’t leave on our honeymoon until Sunday night because I had a play on Sunday (afternoon).


“Riverdale is our second home,” she added.  “If we’re not home, we’re here, so it’s been a blessing.”



Photos were taken during rehearsal on Monday, Dec. 3 as the cast – Emma Davila (green top), Lindsey White (red dress) and Shelby White (scene with gun) among them – and crew members ran through “Dearly Departed” in its entirety as a final preparation for this week’s performances.